Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison traveled to Rochester one frigid night this month to hear residents’ stories about confronting bigotry. The next morning he was back in the governor’s reception room in St. Paul, standing in front of television cameras to announce a major new lawsuit against the vaping industry.
The next day it was a crosstown errand to Minneapolis, where he headlined the latest in a series of community discussions on deadly police encounters, an issue that continues to raise tensions across the state.
The frenetic 72-hour window offered a glimpse into Ellison’s first year as Minnesota’s chief legal officer: shuttling between two offices in St. Paul, trumpeting a challenge to the nation’s biggest e-cigarette maker, and tearing through a schedule of nearly 40 community meetings by year’s end.
“I don’t know how to do it any other way,” Ellison said. “I’m just doing me, man.”
More than a decade after he made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress, the 56-year-old DFL lawyer has sharpened his profile in Minnesota as one of the state’s most activist attorneys general in decades, a distinction in line with his years of civil rights advocacy in Minneapolis. Not surprisingly, an agenda he once described as “relief and justice for the middle class” also has been seized upon by GOP critics who accuse him of politicizing his office.
“He’s turning out to be the most political attorney general in the history of the state,” said Doug Wardlow, a Republican whom Ellison defeated for the office last November. “He’s not the people’s lawyer; far from it. He is turning out to be an attorney general for far-left special interests.”
In his first year, Ellison has rolled out new initiatives on wage theft, drug affordability and hate crimes. To hear him tell it, the burst of activist energy he has brought to the job reaffirmed his surprising decision to leave behind a secure seat in one of the country’s most liberal congressional districts, one now represented by Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Rather than casting votes, he is now pulling the levers of the state’s public legal machinery, sometimes with national implications. Once a member of the U.S. House progressive caucus and a past candidate to lead the Democratic National Committee, Ellison has not shied from joining about a dozen national lawsuits or legal briefs against the Trump administration across topics including immigration and health care.
Those lawsuits, filed alongside fellow Democratic attorneys general and a New York University-funded special assistant focused on environmental law, has prompted accusations from conservative groups that Ellison has given over his office to special interests on the left.
Wardlow, now an attorney for MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a major Minnesota backer of President Donald Trump, cited the NYU-funded position in a fundraising e-mail. Wardlow said he also is actively considering a bid to unseat Ellison in 2022.
Ellison makes no apologies for his agenda.
“Look, everything’s political, right?” he said. “People elected me, they know that I have politics and that’s going to influence it. But that is different from me discharging my responsibility to defend the state.”
For Ellison that has meant representing the state in cases that may conflict with his personal opinions — such as a challenge of the state laws restricting abortion access and a lawsuit alleging segregation in Minnesota’s school system. Ellison said he consulted fellow attorneys general, legal opinions and scholars before concluding that “I have to believe that the law is unconstitutional before I will say I won’t defend it.”
Ellison inherited an office whose staff of attorneys had been halved over the past two decades. Shortly after taking office, he convened what staff described as the first all-hands meeting in nearly 20 years and met personally with each of the office’s roughly 130 attorneys.
Richard Allyn, a former solicitor general and chief deputy attorney general who helped Ellison transition into office, said one of Ellison’s top achievements in his first year in office has been to boost morale.
“It’s certainly true that some of us who have worked there in the past when the office enjoyed a pretty good national reputation were hoping that Keith would embrace some of the initiatives and the matter of treating staff and the lawyers there in a way that was going to be positive,” Allyn said. “He’s using the office to take on issues that matter to people around the state.”
House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, a Golden Valley Democrat who briefly ran for attorney general in 2018, praises Ellison’s anti-vaping lawsuit against Juul Labs as an example of how the Attorney General’s Office can help jump-start policy changes in an area where the legislative process can be slow.
“His relationship-building with legislators on this issue and with the governor, and timing it in such a way to create more pressure for legislative reform, is another form of leveraging his office in terms of public interest,” Winkler said.
Ellison’s travels for “listening sessions” around the state also provide a narrative arc of his activist agenda. The attorney general will have convened about 37 by year’s end, including visits to all corners of the state and five stops at state prisons.
Groups focused on hate crimes, deadly police encounters and drug pricing all plan to release reports next month. The working group on police shootings is co-chaired by Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and includes Clarence Castile, whose nephew Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016.
The drug pricing group, meanwhile, follows a topic Ellison made a focal point of his inaugural address. Ellison chose to highlight the story of Alec Smith, a young Minnesotan who died after his insulin ran out. Ellison has since made Alec’s mother, Nicole Smith-Holt, a leader on the drug pricing task force.
“It just means the world to me that he sees this issue as important as I do,” Smith-Holt said.
To Ellison, a former defense attorney, the job invariably finds him reciting a mantra that has accompanied nearly every news release and public statement he has issued this year: that he wants to help Minnesotans “afford their lives and live with dignity and respect.”
“I say it so often that it’s starting to sound trite to me,” Ellison said. “But ... rebalancing the economic scales is my long-term goal.”
Though a more outspoken public figure, Ellison’s work in some ways reprises that of his DFL predecessor, Lori Swanson, who as the state’s first female attorney general took on insurance companies, the subprime mortgage industry, debt collectors, for-profit colleges, pharmaceutical companies and polluters.
Ellison’s first year also offers a dramatic reminder of what may not have been. On the eve of the 2018 election, Ellison trailed Wardlow in a Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll as he fended off allegations of abuse by an ex-girlfriend. A subsequent DFL Party investigation concluded the accusations could not be substantiated.
Ellison conceded that a defeat would have been “devastating,” but the ex-lawmaker insists he would have been back practicing civil rights law regardless.
“I was never really a congressman — I was a person who was in Congress,” Ellison said of his 12 years there. “And I really believe that it is important to separate your personhood from the job that you’re doing. If I’m nothing without a political job, a political elected office, then I’m nothing period.”